Abstract Games Are Elitist

Chess King

We recently did our Top 5 Abstract Games on the Boardgame Opinions channel. Steve and Amy particularly like abstract games. I’m not as much of a fan, which I’ve been taking a bit of flak for recently! We joke about it because Steve keeps getting me to play abstract games and my opinion in the reviews is usually lukewarm.

Why is this? Why don’t I like abstract games very much? Comments on the channel from people who have been dismayed at my lack of appreciation for these games have caused me to contemplate what my issue is.

I think there are a number of reasons why, but one fundamental issue I keep coming back to is that abstract games can be quite susceptible to elitism. Let me explain…


Top 5 Abstract Games

Before I jump in, let me just say that I’m not on any kind of crusade against abstract games! Plenty of people love abstract games and they can provide a great deal of enjoyment for many. That’s great. I’m not trying to persuade anyone to steer clear of abstract games.

However, people struggle to understand sometimes how I can have a low opinion of well-respected abstract games. This is what I want to explain. The first issue to consider though, is why people play games.

Many people (including myself) play games to socialise and have fun. The people I play with, and the interaction between them, are often more important to me than the actual game itself.

The games that I enjoy the most are the ones that tell a story. “We fought the dragon and survived!” Now I like interesting puzzles and mechanisms that make you think, but I’m really in it for the people more than the game.

However, some people play games for the challenge. The people are secondary. They are playing to test themselves, to learn and improve and to best their peers. Abstract games seem to foster this attitude.

Most abstract games are two-player games that strip out any distracting theme and concentrate on pure strategy and tactics. They are frequently played in silence since the objective of the game (more than any other type of game) is to win by out-thinking the opponent. All of the competitors’ attention and energy is focussed on this goal.

Now there are obviously plenty of people who do play abstract games for fun. They’re trying to win, but they’re not really bothered about who wins in the end. They enjoy a good game with good company.

A large number of people are in it for the intellectual challenge though. For those people, what matters is not the person they are playing against, but the intricacies and nuances of the strategy.

TZAAR

Let me give you an example. Steve and I reviewed TZAAR a while back (one of the games in the GIPF series). One of the viewers commented: “You are not in the top 5% of players skillwise (in general, not only this game) and thus don’t grasp the game fully… The players need to be at a certain level to grasp the depth, strategy and balance.”

They felt that we weren’t qualified to review the game because we hadn’t played it enough to appreciate the strategy. Now they’re absolutely right that we’re not skillful enough at this game to appreciate its depth. Very few people would be.

We’re not trying to provide high-level analysis for competitive gamers though. We’re just providing opinions from people who play a lot of different games on how enjoyable it might be for casual gamers.

The idea that you need to be in the top 5% of players to be able to give a valid opinion of the game is elitist. I’m not saying that playing abstract games makes you elitist. I think they just naturally lend themselves to thinking that way.

Let me give you another example. I’m pretty good at chess and I really like the game. I’ve played it a lot so I would beat most casual players without much difficulty. I have a friend called Ankush, who comes to our weekly gaming group, and he also really likes chess.

Ankush
Ankush (centre) at the MSO 2018

However, Ankush is much better at it than I am. In fact, Ankush won the Pentamind world championship at the Mind Sports Olympiad last year, which included a gold medal at chess (beating two Grand Masters!). He is an expert at a wide variety of games, but is particularly good at abstract games.

We both like chess, but we can’t really play each other as he would trounce me every time, which would be no fun for either of us. A big part of the enjoyment factor in abstract games is the challenge, which doesn’t exist with such a large skill disparity.

By their nature, skill is significantly more important in abstract games than in many other games, which naturally ranks people. You can only play against people of a similar rank, or skill, and people quickly become aware of where they sit in the pecking order.

I’m not saying it’s wrong. I’m not saying that people who like abstracts are somehow unfriendly. Ankush is very friendly and I always enjoying playing games with him. We wouldn’t enjoy playing chess together though. He’s too good. That’s the nature of the game and that’s why I, personally, am not keen on abstracts.


Do you disagree? Am I being too harsh? Let me know!

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Jonathan Hicks

Jonathan is the director of Maven Games. He blogs and records podcast episodes several times a week. Whenever he isn't doing anything else, he designs games.

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One of the things I love about Go is that it comes with a natural handicapping system. I can play against a top-tier player with a big handicap and we can both be playing a game that challenges us, even if it isn’t “fair”. We can both be equally engaged in the action. In fact, it makes playing a weaker player a lot of fun, because playing with a handicap against a weak player and playing even against an evenly matched player have slightly different strategies. Of course, the other issues you mention in this article still apply to Go.